DNA Authenticates Labels, Keeps Counterfeits From Consumers

In February 2012, Jeremy Lin — then a New York Knicks point guard — took just a week and a half to move from unknown Harvard grad to international, cover-of-Sports Illustrated sensation.

Days later, The New York Times reported on the booming trade in counterfeit “Lin jerseys” that had sprung up overnight in China. This kind of story was depressingly familiar to sellers of branded merchandise and premium fabrics, who stand to lose substantial sums when sales are undermined by counterfeiters. The same year as "Linsanity," Burberry scored a major victory when it was awarded $100 million in damages after the Manhattan federal court laid down the law on an extensive counterfeiting network.

Counterfeiters are constantly innovating, and more and more often, it is difficult to discern the differences between genuine and fake products. The U.S. Customs and Border Control has reported that apparel and accessories account for more than 50 percent of all seized counterfeit goods. And according to the Textile Center of Excellence in England (TCOE), the four most counterfeited types of textiles are high-quality woven items, the so-called "noble fibers," including cashmere, interior textiles, and branded apparel and accessories.

But now high-technology advances are starting to come to the rescue.

In September 2012, the TCOE teamed with Applied DNA Sciences, Inc. of Stony Brook, N.Y., to roll out a new platform for protecting textile brands, using the unique qualities of plant DNA as a marking tool. DNA marking has become the preferred choice for some large textile companies because it is relatively inexpensive, cannot be copied, is extremely versatile, provides forensic-level authentication, and does not affect functionality.

The platform, which was unveiled at the PremiÈre Vision Pluriel in Paris, included applications to protect a wide range of textile, apparel and accessory products, including wool yarns, polyester thread, cashmere yarns, fabric selvedge, and woven and non-woven labels.

This advance was extended just more than a year later in December 2013, when a new technology — called SigNature® T — was rolled out with potential to beat counterfeiters at their own game. Developed by Applied DNA Sciences, SigNature T is a platform based on full, double-stranded plant DNA that is designed to provide anti-counterfeiting and anti-diversion protection for apparel and textiles, including military protective wear. Fibers, yarn, fabric, garments, and labels are marked with a unique, secure and enduring DNA signature that can be definitively authenticated at any point in the supply chain.

SigNature T marking and authentication are a cost-effective means to identify original fiber content without impacting the performance or aesthetics of the fiber or fabric. It can be used as a system to help provide quality assurance and quality control in very complex and global textile supply chains.

The DNA application requires virtually no change to the existing production process and can be controlled so that each bale or batch can be marked and tracked throughout the supply chain. Hundreds of millions of kilograms of fiber can be marked using a single DNA marker, offering strong adhesion to the fiber, and providing a means to authenticate anywhere along the supply chain.

Concurrently with SigNature T’s rollout, its manufacturer announced it had started working in collaboration with Supima, a non-profit trade association of the American Pima cotton growers. Although ultra-high-quality cotton fiber retains its cachet as a luxury product, a rising tide of counterfeit cotton cloth threatens the integrity and worldwide sales of the fiber.

Brands interested in bearing the Supima® name must be licensed for such use. The aim of the collaboration was to mark, identify, and protect 100 percent U.S.-grown American Pima, one of the most desirable luxury cotton fibers in the world, from counterfeiting and blending. Work began on the effort immediately, with the SigNature T marking of millions of kilograms of cotton at a major cotton grower; the aim was to mark near 50 million kg of American Pima or Extra Long Staple cotton in a steady manufacturing run. Authentication of the SigNature T mark in the downstream processes will prevent counterfeits and blended cotton from being sold as genuine Supima® products.

More than 350 fine-count textile mills, manufacturers and retailers from around the world are licensed to use the Supima® brand; licenses are given only to select, high-quality textile mills, apparel and textile manufacturers, and retailers whose products are made of 100 percent American Pima cotton. Supima is now able to help its licensees prove originality and identity of the American Pima cotton at all stages of the supply chain and on a finished garment at the retail level. Authenticity can be assured at every step, from spinners to weavers, from fabric mills to designers to retailers and consumers.

A week after the Supima collaboration had been initiated, SigNature T’s manufacturer announced the success of a separate large-scale trial, at an unnamed foreign facility, in which the DNA marker had been applied to five tons of fine Extra Long Staple cotton. Scientists were able to detect the difference between real and fake in every test at each major step of the cotton logistics chain, from ginning, through roving, through finished product. The mark survived despite aggressive processing, industrial washing and other harsh treatments and stresses.

Wool has become a dynamic driver in the luxury apparel market; in January 2014, H. Dawson Wool, a leading worldwide supplier of raw and semi-processed wool products to all levels of the demand chain, initiated its own program to utilize SigNature T. The technology is being used to assure the originality and authenticity of loose wool fiber that will be DNA-marked and traceable in products created by H. Dawson Wool clients, such as fashion houses producing high-end apparel.

Although no measure against counterfeiting can guarantee 100 percent success, SigNature T has demonstrated that it can serve as a significant weapon in the battle to protect apparel at every stage from fiber to hanger. 

James A. Hayward, Ph.D. is president and CEO, Applied DNA Sciences, Inc., a biotechnology firm that provides DNA-based authentication and security solutions and services.
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